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U.S.-Iran naval confrontation in Gulf raises tensions

While the US State Department demands an explanation, Iran's Foreign Ministry calls the incident 'normal.'

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 8, 2008


Five Iranian fast boats confronted a small flotilla of US Navy ships in the Persian Gulf in a "careless, reckless and potentially hostile" incident Sunday, Pentagon officials said.

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The incident, which ended after the Iranian boats turned away with no shots fired, occurred as President Bush prepared to visit the Middle East for talks this week. It considerably raises tensions between Iran and the United States.

The US Navy routinely encounters Iranian boats in the region, but the actions of the Iranian Navy on Sunday are "more serious than we've seen," said Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, commander of the US Fifth Fleet.

"These are unnecessarily provocative [actions] in international waters," Admiral Cosgriff told reporters by videoconference from his headquarters in Bahrain.

Three US Navy ships – the cruiser USS Port Royal, the destroyer USS Hopper, and the frigate USS Ingraham – were on patrol about 12 miles from Iranian territory in the Strait of Hormuz early Sunday when five small boats associated with Iran's Revolutionary Guards approached them, Pentagon officials said. The fast boats, highly maneuverable patrol craft, were "visibly armed," a Pentagon spokesman said, and began aggressive maneuvers against the three American ships, steaming in formation into the Persian Gulf.

The boats got within 200 to 500 yards of the American ships before splitting into two groups. At least one of the fast boats then dropped several white boxes in the water in the pathway of the Ingraham, which successfully dodged them, considering them potential floating mines. Commanders of the US ships also received radio communications thought to be from one of the Iranian boats in which they heard an individual say in English, "I am coming at you. You will explode in a couple of minutes."

A Navy official said it was impossible to determine if the radio transmission actually came from one of the five boats.

Taken together, however, the American ships began to employ other evasive maneuvers and were prepared to "take appropriate action" before the five boats turned away, officials said.

One of the US ships was reported to be on the verge of shooting at one of the Iranian boats but apparently the boats turned away before the commanding officer gave that command, officials said.

Navy officials would not be specific about the kinds of precautions the US ships took, citing the classified nature of the rules of engagement during such incidents.